Sunday, April 30, 2000Remembering Vietnam
After A quarter-century, the pain caused by the Vietnam War seems to be receding in this country. The gulf war cured the armed forces of the debilitating Vietnam syndrome. The U.S. Embassy has been reopened in Hanoi. John McCain's presidential candidacy has shown erstwhile supporters and critics of the war that they can unite in respect for a heroic life story. And yet, despite the steady healing of wounds, the country remains divided on the most basic question of the war. Was it mistaken from the start, as a band led by Robert McNamara now argues? Or was it a complex mixture of defensible goals and disastrous execution?
We have our own history of confusion on this score, having changed our view on more than one occasion. But it does seem to us that the efforts now to present the war as an avoidable blunder, a tragic "misunderstanding" between Americans and Vietnamese, are wrong and possibly dangerous. They gloss over the fact that during the Cold War it was entirely reasonable to speak of communism on the march. Before Vietnam, South Korea needed to be rescued from communist takeover, Hungary's bid for freedom had been crushed, and pro-Soviet parties were strong in Japan, France and Italy. An administration that had narrowly defeated Khrushchev's plan to deploy missiles in Cuba understandably feared the prospect of Vietnam falling to communism.
Moreover, the war enjoyed more public support than the blunder theorists care to remember. There were critics, to be sure; virtually all of this country's wars have sparked domestic opposition. But Americans generally accepted that communism presented a threat to the free world, and most were ready to fight it. Even when the casualties began to mount, Americans elected Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, not his more determinedly anti-war opponents.
For the sake of the 58,000 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam, it is important to recall the large and just cause for which they made their sacrifices. But recollection also offers lessons that may guide future military decisions. For if Vietnam should not be dismissed as a blunder, it nonetheless involved plenty of profound errors. The United States overestimated the value of its technological superiority and underestimated the nationalist passion of its enemy. It failed to anticipate that victory could be bought only at an unthinkable price. And then, because they feared to admit this miscalculation, successive presidents lied and denied for a decade on the way to losing.
The military engagements of the Clinton years--Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo--have all required a version of the calculation that should have been made before Vietnam. All have been "discretionary" wars, in that none threatened American lives or territory directly. So the administration has had to ask how much intervention would cost, and whether this cost was in proportion to the gain; then it has had to justify itself before the public. Such calculations will never come easily. But by and large, Americans have responded wisely: They have been leery of getting sucked into Somalia-style civil wars, but they have supported the use of force to end a clear evil, as in Kosovo. Perhaps this sane willingness to fight, but not just anywhere and at any cost, signals the country's advance toward a post-Vietnam equilibrium.
Washington Post, the Editor
The Internet version of your as usual excellent editorial "Remembering Vietnam" dated April 30 (page B06) says, at the end: "But by and large, Americans have responded wisely: They have been leery of getting sucked into Somalia-style civil wars, but they have supported the use of force to end a clear evil, as in Kosovo."
In my opinion there's some 'venom in the tail' -- "Americans have responded wisely..."
In your wisdom you did not mention a figure, because over 50 pct of Americans did not support your country's war against Yugoslavia. The "clear evil, as in Kosovo" wasn't that clear at all -- much of the "factual evidence" which in Nato eyes should justify an armed intervention was fabricated and/or not verified. Public and politicians were clearly mis-informed with the objective to gain and secure support for the military adventure which resulted in a humanitarian tragedy involving the entire Yugoslav population.
But even in the hypothecical case that your view is correct and Nato ended a clear evil -- Natos intervention created an evil much clearer than the alleged one: the persecution of ethnic non-Albanians in Kosovo and a miserable life for the innocent civilians in the whole of Serbia.